The Bike Book


In 2005, I began a narrative guide to motorcycling in the American West.  The project, often referred to as simply The Bike Book, now has the title, The Lone Rider’s Guide to the American West.  I’ve presented papers at various conferences related to the work over the last four years, which will ultimately form part of the book.  Portions of the book are also now available at two websites: Reality X, where John Alphonse has been kind enough to keep up a sampling of the prose and poetry, and now also The Centrifugal Eye, where Eve Anthony Hanninen has just published her interview with me, and my brief essay on The Poet’s Image on a Ride.

Below you’ll find a portion of the book dedicated to The High Road to Taos, with photos. The Lone Rider’s Guide to the American West will weave together various aspects of the phenomenology of riding, how we interact with landscapes, with geography and geology, and the cultural transformation that have occurred in the American West over the last hundred years or more.


Thanks  to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to  travel across the country from coast to coast without  seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all  steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks  and feels and sounds and smells like every other  place.

Charles Kuralt, On  the Road with Charles Kuralt

Only “middle Americans” (if such people actually exist) and primitives—peoples whose lives are “everyday” in the pejorative, grinding sense of the term—may feel fully a part of their own world.  Modern man has been condemned to look elsewhere, everywhere, for his authenticity, to see if he can catch a glimpse of it reflected in the simplicity, poverty, chastity or purity of others.

Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class

    In A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful, Edmund Burke warns us that  “It is, I own, not uncommon to be wrong in theory, and right in practice; and we are happy that it is so.”  Charles Kuralt seems to have caught that same sense of how theory can go wrong in his estimation of the U.S. interstate system.  It was good in theory, but in practice, the world from the interstate becomes one denuded of particulars and washed in non-descript colors of steel and concrete.  The old U.S. highways, on the other hand, might seem more of a practical experience of road building; and then country roads, and those byways maintained by the states, are even more particular in their constructions, and, like the High Road to Taos, tend to climb over and around natural features of the landscape rather than boring through them.  The interstate system was completed in the 1990s, but it restricts, as Kuralt suggests, the vision Americans have of their own landscape.  It may do more, however; it may create an impression of America which we have inculcated over the years, generation to generation, as each becomes more efficient in finding way to be somewhere else.  It is not simply nostalgia that has caused a few lone souls today to speak out against this homogeneous network of superhighways; it is an understanding of how the landscape actually comes to reflect the changing nature of American character itself.

    When you ride the back roads and byways, you see not only an older West, but also one transformed.  Many of the old highway routes have come and gone in prominence, and along some of the county roads populations boomed and died out over the last century as the superhighways re-routed cross-country traffic, often leaving good roads virtually unused across stretches of desert and high country.  But the High Road has never suffered from such a fate.  Parts of its route cover trails that have been in use since at least the 14th century.  It links a few of the oldest settlements in the northern region of the state, including the pueblos at Picuris and Nambé and the early fortified Spanish town of Truchas. If there’s an irony in it’s survival, it’s that today the increased popularity of the region due to tourism has created more of a problem of deteriorating road conditions than at any time in its lengthy past.

    Route 76 forms a good portion of the High Road, starting in Española.  An alternate route, is by Nambé Pueblo on N.M 503 just north of Tesuque on US highway 285.  These meet in Chimayó, and climb up out of the Santa Cruz Valley by the town of Codova toward the ridge town of Truchas and then north through the Carson Nation Forest to the town of Las Trampas.  Just beyond, Route 76 meets Route 75 near the entrance to the Picuris Pueblos, and the High Road runs east at this point through Vadito and Peñasco, where there’s a junction with N.M 518 headed north to Talpa and Ranchos de Taos back on US 285.

    For a rider, a good road must have certain salient features, not always interchangeable region to region, but generally speaking similar.  Curves that sweep gently into turns, banked to the inside just enough so that when you put the bike over the road itself becomes part of the turn.  Uniform surfaces, no matter of what material really, as long as they aren’t made up of patchwork repairs and deteriorated sections.  The High Road from Santa Fe, coming up out of either out of Pojoaque or Española, is good road, wide enough for graceful travel, and uncrowded but perhaps on the days of the Chimayó pilgrimage.  This is good because then the road allows you to think more about where you are than about who’s moving around you.  The biker is more aware of this than others, for she is more at risk from the mistakes of others, and more aware of how such mistakes can have serious consequences.

    That sense of danger from others and from the hard surfaces over which you travel, might be read in terms of the sublime.  Edmund Burke argues that the sublime provokes at first an overwhelming sense of the world, even an aspect of terror.  On a bike, that aspect of the landscape is increased by your vulnerability within it.  You take in the immensity of the world even as you move precariously through it. Burke says: “Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime…. the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so” (22).  The rider’s eye perceives the world in a little different fashion from others on the road.  The road and the distances are often coequal in her perception, and the biker distinguishes less between immediate space and the landscape opening around her.  Because the world is more physically immediate, the sense of the landscape is more pronounced, your connection with it more direct.  In this there is also a familiar loss of self that accompanies an initial experience of the sublime.  “In the romantic sublime there is a sense of self as nothing before the landscape”, Ron Broglio suggests:

But there is a return for this loss.  First, it is this self reflecting on itself as nothing which yields the pleasure of the sublime.  Secondly, the sublime functions as a guarantee of common sense.  All faculties work together in a mutual identification of the object.  Recognition thus relies upon a principle of collaboration of the faculties.  There is a unity of all the faculties in the subject.  (web site)

This “collaboration of the faculties” could be equated with a certain intuitive sense of your place in the external world.  That intuition is what the rider realizes as a necessary condition of being aware on the road.  The immediacy of the world is the rider’s physical reality.

    In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig comments that people in cars see the world as if they were watching TV, without realizing their place in relation to what they see.  He writes:  

On a cycle the frame is gone.  You’re completely in contact with it all.  You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.  That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness. (4)

It is a matter of being in the moment and realizing the absolute nature of the material world that rushes by around you.  In short, you become part of the view.  The landscape at a distance is only an extension of the road beneath your wheels; your perceptions are most acute because you are never out of the picture.  This frameless world is what a Zen practitioner might call the true nature of reality.  It is the coextensive nature of all things living and inanimate, and something that gets hidden from us through our mental habits, through the ways in which we see ourselves as distinct entities a changeless world.  Pablo Picasso was aware of this, and Cubism is simply an attempt to break down the barriers between our habits of seeing and a more immediate reality.  Habits of sight create expectations of the world, separating it into its various distances, depths, textures, consistencies.  But to recognize reality at that moment Pirsig speaks of, is to see a little closer into the nature of the way we live not in but through the world. The rider is very much aware of this, for the motorcycle balances along an line of continual change and exchange.

In Zen and the Brain, James H. Austin talks about how we are aware of ourselves spatially. Our experience of ourselves within a given community or geographical region encompasses greater distances than the senses alone can perceive. This is what he refers to as our “unconscious circumspatial awareness” (488).  Austin suggests that this relationship is, in part, experiential, and that we depend upon it more than we realize (489).  In Zen practice, there’s an increased level of awareness in this outer domain of spatial identity, or an awakening of “our normal hidden capacity for sensate inferences” (488).  As a rider, you becomes aware of the landscape around you in more ways than simply as perceived.  It may be that there’s a more acute sense of this unconscious circumspatial awareness when we realize the road and the landscape as coextensive.  If normally this heightened sensate awareness comes from a familiarity with a region, it seems right also to suggest that such an awareness might have an existential dimension.  It seems to figrue in the way we picture ourselves as being-in-the-world.  We rarely envision ourselves simply as living in a single spot; we are always somewhat aware of the topography of the areas through which we move.

The deceptive thing about this space is that it’s both physical and cultural.  It has long been thought that Native Americans have a unique sense of the land, and that their identity, both individually and collectively as tribes, depends on topographical associations and local features of their respective environments. Yet, it’s not hard to see that all human beings possess something this type of relationship.  We become attuned to our surroundings, familiar not only with the features of the landscape, but how certain details of that geography relate to us individually.  We also become attuned to the way in which others in the landscape react to our sense of ourselves within particular locales.  This exchange of presence with others, or the intersubjective aspect of the land and community, takes on different meanings with time and historical changes.


    On the High Road to Taos, there are various possibilities for this super-sensate space.  Like many western tribes, the Tewa of San Juan Pueblo define their world by four cardinal points in the surrounding geography; these four peaks have as their center the plaza in San Juan which houses the primary sipapu, or “place of origin” in the southern part of the pueblo itself (Ortiz 18).  This Tewa sense of space differs from others, and so helps constitute a awareness among the Tewa themselves of topographical points that are culturally defined. It is interesting, in this context, that the four cardinal points may have changed over the pueblo’s history.  The northern cardinal point, today Conjilon Peak, may once have been a mountain further north, San Antonio Peak on the Colorado border.  This according to early 20th-century ethnographers.  Alfonso Ortiz, in a more recent study, The Tewa World, suggests that the Tewa worldview itself may have changed over time. Although these four points define Tewa space, both ceremonially and as a community, the demands of defensible land and resources may have helped alter their perception of such space.

    Other cultures might define this same space in various other ways.  Nina Veregge, in “Transformations of Spanish Urban Landscapes  in the American Southwest, 1821-1900,” suggests that early Spanish colonial presence in the area went through transformations “embodied in the Laws of the Indies and the limitations imposed by a frontier culturally and economically impoverished by great distance from its center” (1).  The early Spanish sense of space was often defined by its distance from Mexico, and a growing threat from various nomadic tribes, like the Apache and Navajo.  Architectural artifacts of this spatial identity are still present in the pueblos and town plazas.  Today, a cosmopolitan traveler may relate to the space in yet other ways, by its Territorial architecture and dry climate, through it’s relationship with the tribes of the area but not in direct reference to any one cultural definition.  The interplay of Spanish and Indian influences are present in the configurations of this space as well.  The rider may experience the region by the mental map of its roads, and by how they form to the topography.  Each establishes boundary conditions that reflect Austin’s unconscious circumspatial awareness.  Of the Tewa, Ortiz says: “The point of naming and locating [the mountains] is to give proof of their objective existence and to give some indication of the conceptual range of the Tewa world” (19).  It is the same, however, with all individuals; we define ourselves by our sense of boundaries, by our experience of region, and by the extents of our spatial identities.

    My experience of the High Road into Chimayó, rising up above the Rio Grande Valley, is enhanced in a profound sense of open countryside.  And yet a little investigation into the conditions of such openness and my perspective changes considerably.  These lands themselves are defined by different boundary conditions, from the early pueblos to the 16th and 17th century Spanish Land Grants and later reservations set up by the U.S. government in the 19th century.  The openness, much like that of a National Park at times, is to some extent a constructed space, yet another designation of property within the greater grids of ownership and propriety in the United States.  From a plane at thirty thousand feet, it can come upon you rather suddenly, looking at the neatly demarcated rectangles and squares, the baled circular spots on the Western landscape.  All of America is owned.  The thought itself is enough to set off a chain of realizations about the nature of human interaction with the planet, and how previous to each of our appearance here the space with inhabit has been designated by the greater interaction of cultures.  These demarcations may be arbitrary, in a purely existential sense, but they are today the guiding principles of socially defined space.

    It is a longstanding truism that the idea of property and ownership of the land are Anglo-European concepts.   But it’s clear that some idea of property exists in all cultures, and has been the basis for conflicts since the first smog of recorded history.  Property rights may be something else.  John Locke postulated that the idea of property was a human universal, and predates most other conventions of society (Wiggins 2).  Although there are differences in how the land is conceived, whether politically, religiously, economically, there is increasing evidence that violent conflicts over land define North American space since the earliest populations.  And now even this designation of the earliest is under revision.  Recent archaeological evidence in Washington state (with the Kennewick Man), and on the Baja peninsula, and in Mexico and Brazil suggests that the earliest inhabitants of North and South American may not have been ancestors of the current Native groups, those descended from Mongoloid migrations across the Alaskan land bridge; but rather, that still earlier peoples from Africa by way of Australia, and possibly from northern Europe, settled parts of both continents.  Evidence in Brazil even suggests that these earlier inhabitants were displaced and even eliminated by later invasions. The pre-Clovis footprints and human remains in Mexico have helped challenge longstanding positions on the first inhabitants of the Americas in general.  What these finds make clear is an inherently aggressive aspect to human definitions of space; and moreover, the highly political and self-justifying nature of contemporary debates over originary ownership.  Such legal battles ring with a kind of irony when talk turns to property rights and ancient ownership. 

Unfortunately, this makes rather poor currency with that early notion of the sublime.  Unless, of course, we see it in the context of Romantic self-reinforcement and as itself a political construction. Herman Wittenberg proposes, in reference to recent feminist studies, that: “… the sublime is not read as a purely aesthetic category nor merely as a rhetorical style, but as a mode of domination in which a male subject asserts his rational supremacy over an excessive and unrepresentable experience, leading to a triumphantly enhanced sense of identity” (“The Sublime, Imperialism and the African Landscape”).  It would be good to keep this definition in mind when talking shortly about tourism as its own mode of discourse and spatial awareness.  It seems a major conflict in the experience of a region might come from this contrasting imagery of the openness of the countryside and the earlier boundaries defined by different cultural groups. The sublime aspects of the landscape along the High Road may simply go to emphasize the tension between historical interpretations, the individualistic over the communal.
    Part of the attraction of the High Road for the biker is the slow, sweeping inclines of the road as it leaves the neighborhoods of Pojoaque and begins to climb into the badlands.  If, as an alternative, you come from Española, within the last half mile of town along Route 76 you might see a large, heart-shaped wreath on an erected wooden cross in front of a small house on the left.  This may be a descansos, a roadside memorial commemorating the site of an accident; or it might be simply an expression of the householder’s Catholic faith.  Whatever its context, it evokes a certain aspect of the flavor in the iconography of the High Road itself.   The cross stands perhaps three feet tall, covered with a heart if real flowers, but with artificial ones scattered around its base; and thus it shows in its array a certain mix of cultural aesthetics.  But the cross also suggests a dimension of the difference in the aesthetics of this ride.  The Spanish Territorial flavor of the region, predating the earliest Western expansion, carries with it the prominent signature of the Catholic faith. This is further enhanced by the combined architectural styles of the Puebloan and Spanish colonial eras, which make for the most distinct feature of the region. But the biker can easily be deceived by the nature of these aesthetics.  It seems beneath the surface of this Southwestern landscape rests a history of cultural interaction and struggle, and the rider with an informed sense of circumspatial awareness might find more than postcard aesthetics.

    It helps, of course, that such styles of architectures are now built into the bylaws of some of the towns and pueblos.  Santa Fe, for instance, has required new construction within the circular road of the Paseo de Peralta to conform to either Pueblo or Territorial styles since 1957 (Bunting 1).  The flat-roof and traditional adobe appearance are the prominent features throughout the area.  But the earliest pueblo constructions were, after the return of the Spanish to the area in 1692, combined with colonial influences to make the Territorial styles. “Spaniards wedded many elements to Pueblo style, such as portals (porches held up with posts, often running the length of a home) and enclosed patios, as well as the simple, dramatic sculptural shapes of Spanish mission arches and bell towers. They also brought elements from the Moorish architecture found in southern Spain: heavy wooden doors and elaborate corbel—carved wooden supports for the vertical posts” (Frommer’s online).  To some extent, this unwritten law of conformity extends miles north and south of the city, and has greatly influenced the overall appearance of new construction along the High Road, even since the 17th century.

    In succeeding centuries, retaining one’s culture at times has become a process of eliminating more contemporary influences in favor of perceived styles of the past.  In this context, it’s interesting that the flat-roof style of the traditional adobe house has proved unpractical in the higher elevations, where snow accumulation can cause leakage.  But the style persists.  True adobe itself, a stucco style demanding a lengthy process of baking earthen bricks of clay and sand, has today been almost entirely replaced by more modern adobe-looking mock-ups like “straw bales, pumice-crete, rammed earth, old tires, even aluminum cans,” which are then covered in stucco to give them the authentic Southwestern appearance (Frommer’s Online).  The overall aesthetics achieved for the area is one of some ancient civilization hidden away in the southwestern corner of a country otherwise modernizing at breakneck speed.  Of course, underlying the atmosphere of laid-back antiquity is the rising cost of property and the increasingly heavy traffic loads experienced on some of the more rural highway routes, including highway 76 through Truchas (Department Of Transportation (Dot) Issues; SJM 11 Report).  Adobe in what we might call its natural state actually deteriorates at a very rapid rate, and must be repaired and re-mudded on an annual basis.  Taos Pueblo, renowned for its ancient architecture, has actually little of its original structure left, for given over to the winds and rains, true adobe washes away within a matter of year. 

    Our nostalgia for the sleepy plazas of the typical Colonial period New Mexican town are somewhat ironic in this context as well.  Certain insights are gained through Bainbridge Bunting’s study, Taos Adobes: Spanish Colonial and Territorial Architecture of the Taos Valley.  Bunting points out that the traditional plaza, whereas not specifically defensive in its early manifestations in Mexico, was definitely so by the time of the earlier colonial influences in New Mexico: “the term plaza connoted the idea of a fortified place rather than a central square.  By constructing contiguous houses about a central open area, windowless outside walls could serve as a defense barrier.  The center of the community could be approached only by means of a wide, double gate” (3).  Bunting points out that Taos, Ranchos de Taos, Trampas and Dixon (west of Picuris)  were early Spanish communities of this kind, and we see other early plaza constructions undoubtedly fashioned for defense in towns like Chimayó.  So the rider who feels her experience incomplete unless she rests an afternoon among the peaceful shade trees of the local plaza, would do well to perceive how the inner square was first used for defense.  It was not, however, against the local Pueblo Indian that such defenses were needed, and in fact many pueblos adopted similar defensible structures.  Rather, tribes more recent to the area, particularly the Navajo and Comanche, by the 18th century were making raids on both Spanish and Puebloan settlements.  Edward P. Dozier argues convincingly that the situation was such that if the Spanish colonial presence had not been in the area by the 17th century, the Puebloans would have been driven out of the Rio Grande Valley all together.  The Spanish presence then was their primary defense against marauding bands of Navajo raiders.  Although the rider may be lulled into thinking the High Road a quiet, forgotten trail between small pueblos, its more conflictual past is evident in its architecture.

    At Picuris Pueblo, the conditions were even more critical.  “After the revolt of 1696, most of the Picuris Indians fled northeastward and joined a band of Apaches in the neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado,” Dozier explains.  “The Apaches enslaved the refugees and in desperation the latter asked the Spaniards to rescue them and return them to their pueblo.  Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdez authorized a rescue party under the command of Sergeant Juan de Ulibarri, with a force composed mostly of Pueblo Indians.  The combined expedition successfully returned the refugees to Picuris during the summer of 1706” (64). Once the Spanish were finally in the area to stay, they became a vital part of the ongoing social milieu, and, after a fashion, they provided a much need political stability.  The influence was not simply an imposition of architectural standards either; the present day testifies to the adaptability of Tewa, Tiwa and Spanish cultures to integrated elements of the others.  In establishing ongoing communities, each sought defensive measures during a period of increased activity from nomadic tribes moving into the area.

    Don J. Usner, in his hard-to-find-but-worth-the-trouble memoir on Chimayo’s central plaza, Sabino’s Map, puts it this way:

When viewed in [an] historical context, the Plaza del Cerro is foremost a monument to the compelling need for defense in northern New Mexico in the eighteenth century. The Pueblo people had always recognized this need, and in many ways the plaza mimicked the consolidated villages of the neighboring pueblos.  However, the plaza structure also had old-world roots.  The military-minded Romans first devised the concept of the centralized towns as an efficient means of defending newly claimed territory during the colonization of Spain.  As Spain reclaimed the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors in the centuries preceding Columbus’ voyages, the Spanish established grid-plan settlements similar to the Roman design to solidify control of regained lands. (60)

Those old Roman structures on the High Road to Taos may not be what the rider first thinks of when traveling between its communities, but the complexity of the cultural exigencies often belies the simple aesthetic reference so often found in the well-known Southwestern style.  When we incorporate earlier features, like the sipapu from the kivas, and recognize how it was later placed within the defensive walls of plaza sites like San Juan Pueblo, the contrasting interplay of religious and utilitarian influences becomes clear. 

    Usner points out that New Mexican neighborhoods around the plazas did not take on the grid-work structures of the Old World defenses, “primarily because there was very little military or religious presence and very few roads to speak of.  Like every other old-world convention,” he notes, “plazas here took on a simplified, highly utilitarian form” (60). The standard then was adobe homes joined together to form an open plaza in the middle, with no windows on the outer walls  of the houses.  The small windows elsewhere, another elements of the aesthetic that has captured painterly attention so often, were perhaps not so much for defense as for the lack of available glass.  Bunting suggests glass for windows may not have been obtainable in Santa Fe itself until carried over the Santa Fe trail sometime in the 1850s (5).  He even speculates that the familiar low doorways and raised thresholds are in part because it was desirable to have anyone entering your house to come in stooped over rather than in an upright, possibly fighting, stance (5). 

    If the rider starts to get the sides of the conflict clearly differentiated, it’s easy to disrupt the process.  The Navajo themselves were not free of attacks from other groups during the early centuries, and built what are called pueblitos in the northwestern part of the state; and both Pueblo and Navajo sought defensive housing structures to protect against Ute attacks around the time of the return of the Spanish in 1692 (Fosberg). After the abatement of nomadic Indian raids in the area, village structures changed.  Villages could be more dispersed according to the needs of the agriculture, and small clusters of houses, such as those at Peñasco and Talpa, further along the High Road, built sometimes on higher ground, could overlook the fields (Bunting 4). 

    It’s not hard to see, with all these fortifications, why the general movement in the region was up from the Rio Grande Valley into the adjoining foothills. From the higher altitudes, the low profile piñon and juniper afford a beautiful open view of the surrounding valley.  The road climbs arid ridges up into deeper canyons, barrancas, and then denser pine forests.  There was obviously, to start, a good deal of exposure in the river valley, and a bit more advantage on higher ground. This was certainly what the Spanish settlers from Chimayó and Quemado thought when they built Truchas, 37 miles east of Española. The town sits on the side of a deep canyon, and the original square was a fortified outpost, with a plaza built in the traditional fashion, and with only one entrance (High Road to Taos website).  A group of farmers from Chimayó and residents of Pueblo Quemado (today the town of Cordova) petitioned the Spanish king and the regional governor for permission to settle on the ridge top.  Their purpose was to defend themselves from frequent raids with the help of Pueblo scouts and weapons supplied by the governor.  The governor did not have military resources to help, but was glad to grant the land petition.  The grant itself gives evidence that today’s road north of Truchas very probably runs the same course of the road mentioned in the 1754 petition as a boundary, which states: “On the west, the public road that leads to Pequiries…” (Truchas History website). The settlers needed fortifications against nomadic Indian attacks, such as were already occurring in the Rio Grande Valley.  The governor specifically suggests the construction design of the plaza, after he received his report from the alcalde, the chief magistrate of the region: “sufficient land to build houses and which shall be united and adjoining,” he writes, “forming a square town site, closed and with only one entrance, only large enough for the passage of one carreta, in a manner that the inhabitants and families may be able to defend themselves from invasions and assaults of the barbarous enemies..." (Truchas History website).

With the road today climbing the ridges and traversing arroyos, it’s an interesting impression that the physical beauty of the area, and the sparse populations of the surrounding countryside, are not so much a bucolic remnant of the past as the end result of ancient defensive fortifications and a regional planning that sought safety in strategically located townships.  Although Truchas looks nearly abandoned when the rider enters, it has more of this conflictual history hidden close by.  Toward Taos, as the local history testifies, “on the old road which ascended the north side of the Rio Truchas (The Taos road) are two mass graves of settlers killed going to church at Trampas” from the period preceding the governor’s granting of the land petition (Truchas History website).  So, in part, the region has gained its particular aesthetic from the utilitarian needs of those migrating, in 1772, up from the lower pueblos.

    Around the town of Chimayó itself, similar changes, but on an ecological scale, can be seen, according to Usner.  In Sabino’s Map, he points out how our aesthetic appreciation of those lovely dry arroyos and sparse piñon dotted hillsides around this town does not really take into account what produced these particular features of the landscape:

Chimayó may appear to be a small town in the midst of undisturbed land, but people have altered the appearance of this valley and the hills since they first arrived long ago.  The Pueblo and later Hispanic settlers used the land in similar ways, clearing fields for farming and cutting trees for firewood and building materials.  On the highest hills around town—even on the summit of Tsi Mayoh and on the steepest ridges of the badlands—old stumps of piñon trees, cut by axes before saws were available, attest to the far-ranging wood harvesting that has taken place.  Hispanic people introduced livestock grazing, a more damaging land use that was to leave scars throughout the Southwest.  Goats were best suited to the rugged terrain near Chimayó and foraged extensively in the hills until the early 1960s.  Many of the gullies and ravines around Chimayó formed because of the terrain’s natural susceptibility to erosion, but the natural processes have at times been greatly accelerated by woodcutting and grazing. (24-5)

This transformation may not, at first, be evident to the rider.  But the effects along the barrancas and badlands, the boundary region between these high and low areas, are wide ranging, and Chimayó is only one of many towns which have exhausted the region’s natural resources.

    Chimayó has been the center of the High Road’s attraction for decades now, at least since the pilgrimages to its Santuario began in the 1970s.  Although it is easy to confuse this pilgrimage with older associations of the mythic and magical surrounding the Santuario, it was somewhat by accident that the annual pilgrim for Vocations in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe began.  When a group of boys from Estancia, promised a fishing trip by the local friar, chose Chimayó as their destination, and without other means, decided to get there by walking, a modern religious tradition was born out of a secular event (Holmes-Rodman 25). 

  El Santuario de Esquípulas, Chimayó’s famous sanctuary, contributes its own diverse history to the tradition.  It’s main feature is the magic dirt that comes from a small hole or well in the side room of the main chapel.  Pilgrims have gathered the earth here for centuries, with the hopes of curing ills and sanctifying events in their personal lives.  But like other aspects of cultural terrain along this road, the tradition mixes history with myth, and has as much to do with imported rituals as with indigenous customs. Elizabeth Kay points out, “Geophagy,” or “earth-eating…was common in Central America and Mexico.  The Spanish observed early that the Aztecs ate thick layered cakes made of a slimy substance collected from the surface of Lake Texcoco, mixed with sand and earth, and dried in the sun” (30).  The conquistador Catholics were wise enough to see benefits in using pagan sacred sites to incorporate elements of the new faith, a practice called “baptizing the customs” (30).  A tactic, the rider might note, similar to St. Patrick’s fifth century’s ceremonies on Celtic holy grounds in Ireland.  The original Guatemalan site of Esquípulas was already famous among the Aztec for its healing hot springs and edible earth; the Catholics incorporated this feature into the new sanctuary and the statue of El Cristo Negro de Esquípulas, the Black Christ, was soon given miraculous powers as well.  How this Guatemalan site became transposed into the New Mexican countryside is a long and conjectural story, according to Elizabeth Kay.  But, one way or the other, the Santuario de Esquípulas in Chimayó inherited the sanctified dirt.  This tierra bendita or blessed earth is connected with one other chapel in the area, the Chapel of Our Lady of Talpa, which was used in the 19th century by the Penitente Brotherhood.  As Kay points out, the origins of this Brotherhood in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have long been disputed.  But Bernardo Abeyta, who built the first small hermita which houses the sacred well, or El Posito, in a side room off the main chapel of the Santuario, is credited with transporting the tradition from Guatemala. It is Abeyta who is also perhaps responsible for introducing the Penitente order in the area, having heard of it or seen it himself in the “Sevillian-like penitential confraternities” of Guatemala (37). 

    But then there are other features of the High Road region that make this remote location an ideal home for Los Hermanos Penitentes in the early 1800s.  The fraternal order famous for its real-life reenactments of the crucifixion, found in the rural areas north of Santa Fe a haven far from the orthodox, and critical, eyes of the Church in Santa Fe (American Byways website).  Equated perhaps even then with a extreme form of devotion, a kind of Christian Reality TV, the Penitentes find worship in flagellation and self-mortification, with an annual crucifixion of one of their members.  But again, legend enhances the rider’s experience somewhat, for most of these ritual crucifixions were performed without nails.  The order, nonetheless, was compelled to hide its sacred moradas, or chapels, and even disguised them as common houses, in order to avoid the censure of the Catholic hierarchy, and the less literally-minded believers among the local public. That the Santuario de Esquípulas in Chimayó might be directly linked in its origins with the Penitente Brotherhood again shows the complexity of cross-cultural inheritances along the High Road, for today the two local traditions are rarely discussed in a common frame.  The tierra bendita and the Santuario remain well within the orthodox standards of the faith, while the Penitentes remain shrouded in masochistic imagery. 

The sanctuary itself has undergone changes in the last century since general interest began; the nave is now furnished with wooden benches and the walls covered with elaborate santos, retablos and bultos.  With the help of the author, Mary Austin, the chapel and contents were saved from dismantling and sell-off in 1929, and finally donated to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe (Kay 65-66). Also because of Austin’s efforts, the Santuario retained, at least briefly, its original El Cristos Negros or Black Christ, fashioned after that similar icon in Guatemala, a sacred object said to have healed the sick and performed miracles.  A mixed tradition of miracles, the ancient Indio and the colonial Catholic, has increased the Santuario’s tourist appeal.  As with the Virgin of Guadalupe, and others such miraculous demonstrations of the faith in Latin America, these religious artifacts identify the unique nature of that imported tradition into New Mexico.  Their value has increased, perhaps, as the economic struggle in New Mexico has worsened.  Today, New Mexico’s per capita income is the 45th in the country (even with Los Alamos county as the 18th richest county in the nation).  Perhaps people have found in their sacred history another form of barter, a more spiritual value for the clime.  The miraculous counters the rampant materialism represented by the upper Middle class, even as it feeds that class with a sometimes manufactured history.  Over centuries, the miracles have given a unique character to the Catholicism of New Mexico.  The Santuario retains this tradition in the tierra bendito, and in the miracles attributed to El Cristo Negro de Esquípulas (Kay 44-5). Whether or not the Black Christ of Esquípulas is the same one now kept behind glass in the room with El Posito, it yet retains some power over the other, transient, economic factors in New Mexico by steadily drawing out the pilgrims year to year.


    This draw and the mythic attractions of the High Road represent what Cecelia Tichi calls “the anthropomorphism of the American landscape” (Embodiment of a Nation: Human Form in American Places).  The rider sees this in terms of a mix of impressions, from the magical implications in traditions to the commodification of the same traditions into local attractions.  But the rider is not guiltless here either, forming a part of a growing body of temporarily displaced persons who travel the land in search of sometimes unspoken fulfillments they have not been able to discover in their own hometowns. Dean MacCannell, in a marvelously irreverent study, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, remarks: “It is the middle class that systematically scavenges the earth for new experiences to be woven into a collective, touristic version of other peoples and other places.  This effort of the international middle class to coordinate the differentiations of the world into a single ideology is intimately linked to its capacity to subordinate other peoples to its values, industry and future designs” (13).  The motorcycle, like the horse before it, becomes a vehicle in the West for the illusion of exploration into “virgin” territories, while it performs the rite of passage for those seeking, as MacCannell hinted, to initiate the world into a single ideology of Romantic self-production. “I discovered that sightseeing is a ritual performed to the differentiations of society,” MacCannell writes, “Sightseeing is a kind of collective striving for a transcendence of the modern totality, a way of attempting to overcome the discontinuity of modernity, or incorporating its fragments into unified experience.  Of course, it is doomed to eventual failure: even as it tries to construct totalities, it celebrates differentiation” (13).  This is surely the case with the High Road, which both seduces the tourist and yet displays, for the careful eye, the remnants in art and architecture of a conflictual history.

That the earlier notion of the sublime fits this particular encounter seems apt: the Romantic self has created the mythological dimensions of the High Road even as that same self seeks for something beyond those constructions.  The tourist brochures and advertisements for the region promote the same difference suggested by MacCannell and others.  The rider is looking for that ancient landscape that has escaped urbanization, eluded the industrial waste land, imbued with its own miraculous history, and regenerative in its nurturing of the Romantic self back to a false sense of wholeness. It’s false specifically because it is based on a domination of such “lesser” regions, and the segmenting off into restricted space of what the middle class would denote as bucolic, and exclusively saved for their own regenerative experiences.  Graham M. S. Dann, in The Language of Tourism: A Sociolinguistic Perspective, argues with others that “the language which promotes the bucolic and pastoral is structured according to a binary opposition which contrasts the humdrum activities of home with novelty and excitement elsewhere” 103).  As with the history of cycling itself, its modern day origins in the 1940s with the outlaw gangs formed of returning fighter pilots from the Pacific, the Romantic notion of the individual can only be sustained through a subjugation of others, and the transformation of landscapes into pleasurable escapes.  Dann suggests the significance of gender in the advertising of such regions which, when read together with the Romantic self-imaging of the motorcycling world, might explain why until recently the sport has been dominated by men.  Dann argues “that landscapes are connoted, not only through the sexual imagery of the dominating and the dominated…, but that there is a transition from male descriptions of everyday life to those which are fantastic out-of-ordinary experiences” (103).  The miraculous elements in the mythology of the High Road reinforces the notion of both the sublime and the individualistic demands of the rider as tourist.  Landscapes are not free of identities anymore than individuals or communities.  The High Road’s history has not ended with the most recent wave of interest and usage, and will only for a time, perhaps, escape the transformative effects of tourism and the commodification of culture.  Ride it while you can. 

Works Cites

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Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful With Several Other Additions. Online.

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“First Americans were Australian.” BBC Sci/Tech. Thursday, August 26, 1999 Published at 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK.

Fosberg, Stephen L.. “Navajo Pueblitos Of The Dinetah.”  New Mexico Bureau of Land Management State Archeologist. New Mexico Architecture.

Herold, Laurance C. and Luebben, Ralph A.. Taos Archaeology. Number 7.  Fort Burgwin: Fort Burgwin Research Center, 1968.

Kay, Elizabeth.  Chimayó Valley Traditions.  Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1987.

La Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus.

Larkin, Dana.  Sample Student Property Outline

MacCannell, Dean.  The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class.  New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

Ortiz, Alfonso.  The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being, and Becoming in a Pueblo Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

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Wittenberg, Hermann. “The Sublime, Imperialism and the African Landscape.”  University of the Western Cape, 2004.


The trip always starts with an espresso at the Silver Bean, in Cortez, Colorado, the gatekeeper to the great deserts of the Southwest...

... and with the open road.